Queen-bee Claire Denis has proven to be a master of sensuality, capturing evocative imagery of masculine and feminine sensuality critically. That is to say, the very notion of sensuality does not necessarily cater to positivity. There’s an implicit fear associated with giving into your emotions that runs through her filmography, where stripping or removing oneself from emotionality breeds the best results. Bastards, her new film currently playing for a limited run at Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center, adheres to her developed worldview and amps its intensity to 11. Its treatment of emotional desolation, sexuality, sensuality, and gender politics functions as an exhaustive and heightened primer for much of Denis’ work.
It’s all about the taut atmosphere that gives Bastards its noir vibe. From an opening shot of relentlessly pattering rain to the grays and blacks that comprise the picture’s central Parisian domicile, Bastards is (digitally) shot with the heritage of film noir in its back pocket. The digital aspect to Bastards surprisingly adds to the direness on display, with images so pristine, almost falsely so. This is the first time Denis works digitally and unfortunately, it’s a jarring experience following recent screenings of her earlier work. Films like Beau Travail or Chocolat don’t exactly represented pleasant, happy-go-lucky affairs, but Bastards is operating on a whole other level of direness that only seems to be compounded by the artificiality of digital photography. But the sheer brutality at the picture’s core, the complete and utter miserablism that infects every frame makes for a film that can best be described as sinister.
The narrative, much like most of Denis’ work, bleeds. Denis provides details to both the audience and the film’s characters conservatively, never giving away her hand too early. Bastards opens with two parallel narratives: the first involves a mother (Chiara Mastroianni) taking care of her child while the other involves a sea captain (Vincent Lindon) anchoring his ship. Interspersed are images of a nude woman in heels (Lola Creton, of Goodbye, First Love and Something in the Air fame) and the image of a well-dressed man with a shaved head. Bastards nestles into a groove that provokes something close to delirium. Every character seems to be functioning out of primal necessity. But as the relationships of all the film’s characters expose themselves, a complicated spectrum of familial ties and brooding carnal obligation interferes.
Much like my experience with Trouble Every Day, Denis’ 2001 film, Bastards becomes more a picture worth admiring rather than one worth adoring. The grimness at the film’s core, where virtually every action is scrutinized under a lens of social and sexual anxieties, almost becomes overwhelming within its short 90-minute runtime. Bleak as Bastards may be, it affords Denis with another opportunity to prove how incredibly nuanced and deliberate a director she can be. Every Denis film I encounter only solidifies her standing as one of the world’s foremost directors, even if Bastards proves to be a bit too parlous for my taste.